Sunday, February 26, 2012

Invited Seminar: All Heritage is Intangible

Dr. Laurajane SMITH
All Heritage is Intangible
15th February 2012

With the sponsorship of the Genling World Heritage Foundation, the Department of Anthropology invited Dr. Smith to present her lecture entitled, “All heritage is intangible”. The lecture consisted of two parts: first Dr. Smith theorized heritage, and then presented some findings of her long-term research which developed her ideas of what is heritage. The focus of the lecture was to examine how heritage is constructed and how the meanings of heritage are consistently negotiated by people in various cultures and contexts.

According to UNESCO (a heritage-making body), cultural heritage is defined as human-created remains that represent unique cultures of the past, which includes tangible and intangible heritage. Dr. Smith reminded us heritage is very often understood as something “old” and beautiful, and can be measured and judged by experts, and listed, such as on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But according to Dr. Smith, this is not really heritage. In fact, she claimed, “There is no such thing as heritage.” Dr. Smith points out that heritage is not a frozen moment in material form, but a moment of actions incorporated with a range of meanings; heritage is subjective political negotiation and identity making. Although UNESCO gives a universal definition of cultural heritage, heritage has been consistently (re)created by human beings in accordance with a range of contemporary needs and concerns in their societies. Dr. Smith, however, argued that all heritage is intangible in the sense that it (re)constructs social and cultural meanings, and that make sense only in the present form and through our identity in a given place.

Dr. Smith provided supporting data from her large-scale, long-term research on museums and heritage sites in the US, Britain and Australia, to argue that the hegemonic discourse about heritage can be challenged by visitors. The authorized heritage discourse is dominated by Western Europe; heritage-making bodies such as UNESCO and ICOMOS promote a set of Western values of heritage and make them universally applicable. Dr. Smith criticized the authorized definition of heritage. It not only constrains our understanding of heritage, but also affects society, as heritage is related to social inclusion and exclusion. To illustrate this point, she noted that people visiting museums and heritage sites would often see through or even reject the official understanding of heritage, such as the official point of view legitimizing nationhood, selectively chosen by the so-called “experts.” Although the national heritage sites and museum are often used for political reasons, those cultural institutions do not and cannot really control how the visitors think, perceive and make sense of what they see. People are subjective beings and active agents adopting different ways to make or unmake heritage. Visitors’ own cultural background and their different levels of emotional involvement affect what messages the visitors take away from the heritage and how they make sense of the heritage.

Dr. Smith concluded the lecture that heritage is a cultural embodiment. It is a cultural process related to gender, ethnicity, nationhood and identity construction. So, what about the non-native visitors, how do they interpret the heritage in specific places? Is the concept of heritage still important if everything is a construction? Dr. Smith’s research is important for helping us see the cultural construction of heritage. Her lecture demonstrates how heritage can be used as an analytical framework to understand cultural change, especially how people connect with the past and create a range of meanings for the present through choosing certain ideas and images, such as those seen in the museums, to reinforce knowledge of themselves and the places they identify with.

Chan, Hiu Ling
MPhil Candidate

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